3.6.20

MARC BOLAN KILLED IN CRASH by Ira Robbins


Exploitation in the pop world is the issue addressed by Ira Robbins in this intriguing new novel, subtitled A Musical Novel of the 1970s. In 1974 Robbins was the co-founder of Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, an independent music magazine published in New York that for the most part flew the flag for cool acts whose music was not necessarily tuned towards commercial acceptance.
         An exception was The Who, whose Fillmore East concerts in 1968 and 1969 seem to have been Robbins’ Road-to-Damascus moment. They appeared on the front cover of the first edition and many subsequent issues, and he remains one of their most perceptive critics. The UK rock scene thus became Robbins’ primary interest and from The Who through Glam Rock to Punk, New Wave and beyond, Trouser Press stood out for its intelligent, in-depth coverage of much of the rock that emanated from here.
         All of which means that his book is well informed with regard to the mechanics of the UK rock world. Although I have my doubts about the relevance of the title – it’s not about Marc Bolan at all – it rings true in its portrayal of the characters involved in a fictitious ladder-to-success tale that at the same time paints a predictably ugly picture of the scheming, ego-driven unscrupulousness that goes on behind the headlines in the pop press. The novel's secondary theme is the question of whether or not pop music, while not exactly worthless, is little more than an ephemeral distraction that too often relies on the naive sensibilities of a young audience desperate to find something to rebel against.
         Without giving too much away, the tale centres on Laila, just out of school, who through an only just plausible set of circumstances is sought out by the manager of a indulgent pop star to help his declining career through suggesting ways in which he might appeal to a younger fan base. While her ideas are not met with wholesale acceptance by the unlikable star in question, his manager realises Laila has a talent for writing lyrics and might have a future on stage and on record. The star-making machinery moves into gear and Laila becomes moderately successful but deep down she’s unhappy, disillusioned and dissatisfied with her destiny. The realisation that all that glitters is not gold provides an unexpected conclusion.
         A lot more happens, of course, including Laila’s fraught relationships with her father, a boyfriend or two, the manager’s glamorous assistant and the ego-driven star whose career she was commissioned to save. I liked her character a lot. She’s feisty, a punk in the making, with a mind of her own, unwilling to be intimidated by powerful male forces, and I was impressed that a writer of Robbins’ mature years could see into the mind of a teenage girl so intuitively.
         The male characters are not quite so well drawn, perhaps because the pampered, arrogant rock star and his scheming manager, who thinks only of lining his own pocket, seem a bit clichéd to me. (I long to read a rock novel in which the star’s manager is a caring individual who does well by his client.) As you would expect, there’s a dash of sex’n’drugs, applied without judgement, and Keith Moon makes a hilarious cameo appearance, but one slight irritation was that the author rather overdoes the British slang which at times goes well into the danger zone, especially from a Scottish character whose speaking voice I often found difficult to decipher.
         At over 150,000 words Marc Bolan Killed In Crash is quite lengthy but it’s still a page-turner. I finished it on screen in three days flat, an endorsement in itself. It is available in the UK on Kindle and print-on-demand through Amazon. Here is the link: https://amzn.to/2zJXIAV

1.6.20

BLACK LIVES MATTER

As protests in America erupt following yet another violent death of an unarmed man of colour at the hands of a gung-ho American cop, I spent a while thinking this morning about how to react and how to support the Black Lives Matter cause. The best way would be to use my Just Backdated blog, which gets between three and four hundreds hits a day, sometimes more when I can somehow link it to a fan site.
            Scanning the blog, however, I find that posts about black acts are pretty rare, the last being my tribute to Little Richard earlier this month, but in truth 25 out of a total of 806 posts, about 3%, is way too small really. Those posts constitute a category down the right hand side of page that I called ‘Soul/R&B/Mobo’ but the reality, of course, is that well over half my posts are probably either about Music Of Black Origin or, more precisely, about acts that perform Music Of Black Origin, most of them white.
            In an attempt to remedy this I decided to look at the iTunes folder on my laptop and check how many black acts were there. Turns out there’s well over 300, a decent amount and if I was sympathetic to rap music and what passes for R&B these days, which I’m not, there’d be a lot more. I suspect there’s way more black acts than white acts but in terms of actual songs the white acts dominate. Of the black acts, only a handful – Hendrix, Prince, Al Green, Sam Cooke, Bob Marley, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Miles Davis, maybe one or two more – seem to have lots of songs but none really compare to the amounts of songs I have by the likes of The Who, Presley, Bowie, Beatles, R.E.M. etc. (The total number of songs is now 20,575.)
            This is obviously because I have downloaded loads of Various Artists CDs in the blues, reggae and soul genres and the result is that I have a far wider selection of black acts than white ones, which I found interesting. I also noted that these downloaded CDs, especially the reggae ones, have been played as much as, if not more than, most other CDs. For the record, here’s all the black acts I could find in my iTunes folder. I may have missed some. An asterisk indicates a mixed band. And this list is the best way I can think of to say that Black Lives Matter.
            Aaron Neville, The Abyssinians, Admiral Bailey, Al Green, Albert King, Alicia Keys, All Saints, The Alley Cats, Althea and Donna, Ann Peebles, Anoushka Shankar, Apache Indian, Archie Bell & The Drells, Aretha Franklin, Art Blakey, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Arthur Alexander, Arthur Conley, Aswad, Average White Band*
            BB King, Barbara Lewis, The Bay-Kays, The Beat*, Beenie Man, Ben E. King, Benny Spellman, Betty Everett, Betty Wright, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Turner, Big Joe Williams, Billie Holiday, Billy Preston, Billy Stewart, Black Uhuru, Blind John Davis, Blind John Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Blue Mink*, Bo Diddley, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, Booker T & The MGs, Booker T, Brook Benton, Buddy Guy, Buena Vista Social Club, Buju Banton, Bukka White, Burning Spear
            Cab Calloway, Cannonball Adderley, The Capitols, The Capris, Carla Thomas, Cassandra Wilson, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Champion Jack Dupree, Charlie Parker, The Chantels, Charly Black, Chic, The Checkmates, Chubby Checker , Chuck Berry, Chuck Willis, Clarence Carter, The Cleftones, The Clovers, Clyde McPhatter, The Coasters, Cole Stevens, The Contours, The Cookies, The Crests*, The Crystals, Curtis Lee, Curtis Mayfield
            Damien Marley, Dandy Livingstone, Darlene Love, Dave & Ansel Collins, Dawn Penn, The Del Vikings*, The Dells, Dennis Brown, Deon Jackson, Desmond Decker, Desperados Steel Band, Detroit Emeralds, Diana Ross, Dinah Washington, The Dixie Cups, Dobie Grey, Don Covay, Donald Byrd, Donny Hathaway, Doris Troy, Dorothy Moore, The Drifters, Duke Ellington
            Earth, Wind & Fire, Eartha Kitt, Eddie Floyd, Eddie Holland, Eddie Taylor, Eek-A-Mouse, Ella Fitzgerald, Elmore James, Emile Ford & The Checkmates, The Equals*, Eric Donaldson, The Esquires, Esther Phillips, Etta James
            Fats Domino, Fats Waller, Fine Young Cannibals*, The Fi-Tones, 5 Royales, The Five Satins, The Flamingoes, Fontella Bass, The Foundations*, The Four Tops, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Fun Boy Three, Funkaldelic
            Garnet Mimms, Gene Allison, Gene Chandler, Geno Washington, George McCrae
Gladys Knight & The Pips, Glamma Kid, Grandmaster Flash, Gregory Isaacs
            Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, The Harptones, Harry Belafonte, Harry J Allstars, The Heptones, Herbie Hancock, Horace Parlan, Howlin’ Wolf
            I Roy, Ike & Tin Turner, The Impressions, The Ink Spots, Inner Circle, Irma Thomas, Isaac Hayes
            JB Lenior, Jackie Wilson, Jackson 5, James Brown, James Eastwood, Janet Kay, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Cliff, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Ruffin, Joe Tex, John Coltrane, John Lee Hooker, John Legend, Johnny Nash, Josh White, Junior Walker, Junior Byles, Junior Kelly, Junior Murvin
            Kamasi Washington, Ken Boothe, Kevin Lyttle, Kim Weston, Koko Taylor, Larry Williams, Lavern Baker, Leadbelly, Lee Scratch Perry, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Li’L Millet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Little Junior Parker, Little Milton, Little Richard, Little Walter, Lloyd Price, Luis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Lowell Fulsom
            M People*, Mabel John, Marc Seales, The Mar-Kays, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Mavis Staples, Max Romeo, Maxine Brown, The Melodians, Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim, Michael Jackson, Mighty Diamond, Mikey Dread, Miles Davis, Minnie Riperton, The Miracles, Miriam Makeba, Mississippi John Hurt, The Moonglows, Muddy Waters
            Nat King Cole, Neville Brothers, Nikhil Bannerjee, Nicky Thomas, Nina Simone, Norah Jones, Notch (Norman Howell),
            The O’Jays, The Orioles, Oscar Peterson, Otis Redding, Otis Rush, Otis Spann
            PP Arnold, The Paragons, The Penguins, Percy Sledge, Peter Tosh, Prince, Prince Far I
            Ramsey Lewis, Ravi Shankar, Ray Charles, Rita Marley, Robert Johnson, The Ronettes, Ruth Brown
            Sade, Sam & Dave, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Scott Joplin, Scotty, The Selector, Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, The Shirelles, Sister Nancy, Sister Sledge, Skip Marley, Sleepy John Estes, The Slickers, Slim Harpo, Sly & The Family Stone, Sly & Robbie, Smokey Robinson, Solitaires, Solomon Burke, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sophia George, The Soul Stirrers, The Specials, The Spinners, The Staples Singers, Stephen Marley, Stevie Wonder, Sugar Minott, Super Cat, The Supremes
            Tanto Metro & Devonte, Tarrus Riley, The Temptations, Thelonious Monk, Third World, Tina Turner, Tony Tribe, Toots & The Maytells,
            UB40*, Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan
            The Valentinos, Village People *, The Vocaleers, Wes Montgomery, Wilbert Harrison, Wilson Picket, William Bell, Womack Brothers
            Yabby You, Yellowman, Ziggy Marley

The only way to follow this list would be to list those acts who wouldn't be where they are if it wasn't for Music Of Black Origin having given them the impetus to become musicians in the first place. But that's for another day. Remember: Black Lives - And Black Music - Matter. 

18.5.20

ASTRID KIRCHHERR


Astrid Kirchherr, whose death aged 81 was announced at the weekend, was the first photographer – maybe even the first person – to recognise the aesthetic appeal of The Beatles. I have always thought that the pre-fame pictures she took in Hamburg of John, Paul, George, Stuart Sutcliffe and, to a lesser extent, Pete Best, reflect not just the innocence of young lads away from home for the first time but also a hunger, not just for food, which wasn’t plentiful, for something better in their lives. Perhaps Astrid instinctively knew that something better, something beyond their wildest dreams, lay around the corner. 
         Astrid’s most famous early photograph of five Beatles was taken in November of 1960 at Heiligengeistfeld, an open space in Hamburg where a travelling funfair has just set up for a month’s residence. None of them are smiling and though Pete and George look at the camera, the other three look distracted, detached, as if something in the distance has caught their eye. Four of them are lovingly cradling guitars: George his Futurama III, the nearest cheap guitar to a Fender Stratocaster; John his first Rickenbacker, newly bought in Hamburg; Paul the Hofner Club 40 that belonged to John, strung left-handed so he appears to be playing it upside down; and Stuart in ever-present shades with the Hofner 333 bass (aka 500/4 or 5) he bought with the proceeds from the sale of one of his paintings. On the left and slightly apart from the others stands Pete Best, his sticks in his hand, his snare drum on a stand.
         I and many others saw this picture for the first time in Hunter Davies’ 1968 Beatles biography. Accustomed only to seeing them in their early years with fringes that covered their foreheads, I can remember thinking, ‘Wow! I never realised they once looked like this.’ The Beatles’ premier archivist and biographer Mark Lewisohn identifies this picture as, ‘The definitive image of the group before they attained fame.’ On his Twitter feed Mark wrote of Astrid: ‘Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to The Beatles was immeasurable.’
         Astrid took many more pictures of The Beatles, both collectively and individually, all of them in black and white, her favourite medium.* There’s another from that fairground of George and John sitting on the bonnet of a truck with Stuart in front of them, holding his bass at an odd angle, pointing to the ground. Then there’s the one of Teddy-boy John in the foreground and Stuart, unfocused, behind him, and a similar one with Paul in the foreground, as well as individual shots of George and John at the same location. Astrid also took many moody shots of Stuart in her bedroom-cum-studio, including several with herself in the frame. Stuart, of course, became her lover and would subsequently remain in Hamburg with her following The Beatles second visit to Hamburg, at the end of March 1961. 

Astrid and Stuart

Had it not been for a tiff with her boyfriend Klaus Voormann Astrid’s lens might never have settled on the group that in 1960 spent three and a half months in Hamburg, the final two at the Kaiserkeller. After the row Klaus mooched off on his own and heard The Beatles as he passed by outside the club. Intrigued, he went inside, liked what he saw and heard, and brought Astrid and another friend, Jürgen Vollmer, to see them the following night. By all accounts this trio of young Germans, art students all, became fixated by the group and over time influenced them in other ways, most notably in the clothes they wore and by persuading them to abandon their quiffs and comb their hair forward, a look Astrid first gave to Stuart.
         These three friends were unquestionably the first people in the world to see something in The Beatles that went beyond the music they played, an attraction that in the right hands would translate into a perception of physical male beauty that defied the conventional norms of the 1950s, upsetting the world in the process. It was a secret they shared between themselves, at least until Brian Epstein walked in on The Beatles at the Cavern almost a year to the day after Astrid photographed them at that fairground.
         Stuart Sutcliffe, whose talents as a painter far exceeded his skills as a musician, died from a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg on April 10, 1962. Astrid was heartbroken but maintained her relationship with The Beatles, photographing them on the set of A Hard Day’s Night and visiting Liverpool where she took photographs of fans waiting outside the Cavern. On that same trip she took pictures of George and Ringo in their shared London flat and at John and wife Cynthia’s flat in Emperors Gate in Kensington. The first real holiday Paul, George and Ringo had as their star rose, in April 1963, was a trip to Tenerife to see Astrid and Klaus, while John went to Spain with Brian. Astrid caught up with all of them when they came to Hamburg on the German tour in June 1966, and with John when he was filming How I Won The War in Germany in September of that year. A new portrait she took of George, with whom she maintained the closest contact, appeared on the back cover his album Wonderwall Music in 1968.
         Astrid later worked as an interior designer and in a restaurant. For many years she earned nothing from her widely published photographs but eventually secured copyright, held exhibitions and published three books.
         “The most important thing I gave The Beatles was my friendship,” she said.

* Interestingly, the well-known image of John, Paul and George in black leather jackets and western-style boots, shot against the skyline on a Hamburg rooftop, was not taken by Astrid. The photographer is unknown. 

10.5.20

LITTLE RICHARD – OOH MY SOUL!


So where do we start?
         Elvis worshipped him. Bob Dylan’s boyhood ambition was to join his band. On 27 December 1960, at Litherland Town Hall, the first step on their yellow brick road, The Beatles opened up with ‘Long Tall Sally’. Mick says when the Stones were on tour with him he’d watch his moves to learn how to entertain. Jimi was fired from one of his bands for trying to upstage him. My biggest influence, says Elton. Then there was Nod. 
         The first sighting I had was of his shoes, black with silver toecaps, and baggy pants. Then the camera panned upwards to this black guy in a brown silk suit with a pencil moustache and high quiff, swaying to and fro as he bashed the keys on a baby grand piano with its lid up. ‘Ready set, go man go, I got a gal that I love so.’ And there he was, hollering away, backed by four horns, guitar, bass and drums, rocking up a storm, an image that remained unchanged for six decades.
         That was The Girl Can’t Help It. I was ten. I missed Don’t Knock The Rock but saw his second movie in our local Odeon. It was an otherwise forgettable romantic comedy, produced as a starring vehicle for platinum-blonde sex goddess Jayne Mansfield, but its influence far outweighed its limited ambition. When I first saw David Byrne in his baggy suit I wondered whether he got the idea from seeing Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It.
         The records all arrived around the same time. ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Jenny Jenny’ and more. Richard’s recording of ‘Tutti Frutti’ was my first exposure to rock’n’roll before I heard Elvis, albeit only just. It was a 12” 78rpm disc on the London-American label, brown and silver, played in a classroom at school in Cross Hills and to this day I can recall with absolute clarity not just the actual room where I heard it but where the wind-up gramophone was located and even where I was standing in relation to it. And also, of course, the bomb-drop shock of that opening line.
         All of Little Richards great rock’n’roll songs were recorded between September 1955 and October 1957, and a year later, to my profound distress, he gave it all up for God. I remember reading about that in NME and cadged the money to buy Here’s Little Richard, the first non-Elvis LP I ever had.
         Elvis had his sneer, Chuck his duckwalk, Bo his square guitar, Buddy his Strat, Don & Phil their harmonies and Jerry Lee his 13-year-old bride, but Little Richard outshone them all when it came to showmanship. He was, I think, the purest of all the rock’n’roll pioneers. There was something elemental in his frantic, unrestrained delivery, that voice screaming from the rooftops, a blood-curdling shriek, and the gibberish of the lyrics: nothing exploded the eardrums like “Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom”. If you didn’t know what it meant you weren’t alive, man.
         ‘He’d scream and scream and scream,’ wrote Nik Cohn in Rock From The Beginning, his seminal treatise on rock’n’roll, subsequently retitled Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. ‘He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical, completely indestructible, and he never in his life sang at anything lower than an enraged bull-like roar. On every phrase, he’d embroider with squeals, rasps, siren whoops. His stamina, his drive, were limitless. And his songs were mostly total non-songs, nothing but bedrock twelve-bars with playroom lyrics but still he’d put them across as if every last syllable was liquid gold.’
         That’s the best description of Little Richard’s enormous voice that I’ve read anywhere. It gets to the nitty gritty better than all the quotes from the rock stars whose opinions were solicited by those who wrote stories about Richard’s demise in the papers and on line today.
         Interestingly, they didn’t include Noddy Holder, whose singing voice most clearly resembled that of Little Richard to my ears, unless you count Paul McCartney who when he wanted to could imitate Richard about as well as anyone. Slade’s first hit, of course, was ‘Get Down And Get With It’, a cover of a Bobby Marchan 1964 B-side, but Slade’s version was more along the lines of Little Richard’s cover of the same song from 1967. The very best rock’n’roll track The Beatles ever recorded – or Paul sang – was their 1964 cover of ‘Long Tall Sally’ on an EP I still treasure.
         Noddy has recalled seeing The Girl Can’t Help It in a Wolverhampton cinema – sorry picture house – in 1957, an experience from which he never recovered. “When I saw Little Richard dressed in a silk suit with that big bouffant greased hair, pounding the piano, screaming his head off, shaking his arse, the band behind him just swinging, I just flipped,” he told Neil McCormick of the Daily Telegraph in 2005. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This is what rock and roll is: shock, performance, primal beat.”
         In 2003 at Omnibus Press I published a revised edition of Charles White’s book The Life and Times of Little Richard: the Authorised Biography, and was dumbstruck to learn that his biggest UK fan was a dentist from Scarborough. It’s a great book, full of tall tales and downright filth, all about the man whom Charles dubbed the Quasar of Rock. There’s also the best account anywhere of the dubious origins of ‘Tutti Frutti’.
          Ooh, my soul!

7.5.20

FLORIAN SCHNEIDER (1947-2020)


I was introduced to Kraftwerk by an unlikely source, an American rock promoter called Ira Blacker who in 1975 invited me into his New York office to listen to ‘Autobahn’. Ira was one of those brash American businessmen attracted in large numbers to the US music biz in those days, slightly overweight, cigar-chomping, overflowing with confidence to the extent that if you disagreed with them you were a schmuck and might live to regret it.
         Ira loved Kraftwerk and I found this unusual. Men like Ira generally preferred their rock performed by men who looked like rock stars, tight pants, long hair, flash showmen who sang about boogieing all night with loose women. They weren’t normally drawn to foreign groups who dressed like bank tellers and produced music that eulogised motorways. But Ira, whom I had met only briefly before, was the first American music entrepreneur to see something in Kraftwerk, and after he’d played ‘Autobahn’ – the long version – he asked me my opinion.
         “Well, it’s certainly different,” I said, or words to that effect.
         “D’ya like it?”
         “Yes. It’s a nice tune. Hummable.  Bit long though.”
         “Yea. A bit too long. You’re right.”
         And that was that. Looking back on this encounter 45 years later it occurs to me that Ira had probably asked me along because I was the only European he knew in New York whom he could consult on the merits of ‘Autobahn’. Maybe he didn’t trust his own instincts.
         To be honest, I didn’t think much about it at the time and promptly forgot about him and Kraftwerk. I later learned that not long after this meeting Ira had flown to Germany with a wad of cash, persuaded the group to record a shorter version of ‘Autobahn’, or edit the existing track, and soon afterwards promoted their first US tour which was not particularly successful, though Kraftwerk did perform an eight-minute version of ‘Autobahn’ on Midnight Special, the syndicated TV rock show, watched by the Jackson 5 who were also on the show that night. To my regret I didn’t go to any of the shows, perhaps because they didn’t play in New York.
         I was reminded of all this yesterday as I read about the death from cancer of Florian Schneider. Florian, a deeply private man, was generally credited with being the founder of Kraftwerk, though Ralf Hütter subsequently became the group’s dominant figure, with the ‘real’ KW rounded out by Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. This quartet was responsible for the music recorded between 1974 and 1981, beginning with Autobahn and ending with Computer World, a five album legacy on which their enormous influence rests, and while the individual contributions to what was recorded remain undefined, there can be no question that Florian’s role was crucial to the end result.

Karl, Wolfgang, Ralf & Florian, in 1975
         
My own relationship with Kraftwerk was fairly transient – I liked what I heard but didn’t go out of my way to hear more – until about ten years ago when David Buckley persuaded me to commission a biography on them, to be written by him, its title simply Publikation. I knew that KW were reticent individuals, especially Schneider and Hütter, so I didn’t hold out much hope for insights but I knew they had a large and loyal following, that KW books were thin on the ground and that David lived in Germany and loved them, and electronic music in general, dearly. Also, books on mysterious artists tended to do well, as I discovered when I bought a manuscript on Syd Barrett. David was my man and he lived up to his promise, this despite the problems inherent in writing about a group who rarely gave interviews and lived behind a wall of privacy.
         David was able to bring to his book a German perspective that I don’t think a UK based author would bring, just like Magnus Palm brought a knowledge of Swedish culture to the Abba biography he wrote for me. When David delivered the book he also sent me sent me 10 KW CDs, and I listened to their music closely as I edited his text, all of it over a period of weeks. I soon realised what I'd been missing and three tracks ended up on one of my endlessly rotated playlists: ‘Europe Endless’, with its exquisite choral backdrop and travelogue lyrics, ‘Neon Lights’, whose melody is simply beautiful, and the fugue-like instrumental ‘Franz Schubert’. I’d been under a misapprehension that KW were merely creators of sonic blips on computers but in reality they were modern German composers inspired by European romantic classical traditions. Rightly credited with having pioneered the repetitive sequencing on which so much modern dance music is based, Kraftwerk also created luscious, trancelike melodies that turned me into a huge latter day fan. These three tracks are among the songs that, as David correctly observes, are “a sonic refutation of allegations that Kraftwerk had no soul”.


         As befitting this most reserved of groups, Florian’s death was something of a mystery and may have happened some time in April. He liked to tease interviewers by offering confusing information, and sightings of him were few and far between after he left the group sometime between 2006, when he gave his last performance with KW, and 2009, when Hütter let slip he was no longer a member. Reportedly, it was because he disliked touring. Since that time Hütter and a Kraftwerk comprising three more recent recruits have toured the world, albeit infrequently, and appeared at venues not normally hospitable to rock, like the Tate Modern in London, but then again Kraftwerk were never rock in the first place.
         “He was, after all, an inventor,” writes David as a tribute to Florian in Publikation, “content to work in the lab at Kling Klang [KW’s studio] on advanced techniques to mould and modulate the Kraftwerk sound, particularly in terms of vocal expression. But there seemed something inherently wrong when Kraftwerk took to the stage without him… [the] absence of Florian’s bald pate, his straight, superior nose, his mad-professor demeanour, his statuesque manner, his smile that always seemed to break out at any moment, removed Kraftwerk’s iconic figure. Show anyone a picture of Kraftwerk circa 1977 and ask them what country they came from and it would Florian who gave the game away. Florian also brought to Kraftwerk a good deal of its humour, a touch of the offbeat and absurdity, that wide smile uniquely charming yet at the same time mildly sinister. In a band that had always presented itself as the embodiment of mechanical efficiency, Florian reminded fans that Kraftwerk were human after all.”


6.5.20

MY THIRD DAY AT MELODY MAKER, May 6, 1970

MM staff, 1972; back: Richard Williams, Ray Coleman, Allan Lewis; 
front: Michael Watts, CC, Chris Welch, Mark Plummer. Pic by Barrie Wentzell. 

After the purposeless Tuesday, the staff of Melody Maker reassembled in the office on Wednesday morning. Copies of that week’s paper, hot off the press from Colchester, awaited us and were scrutinised eagerly. I was probably the first to arrive, not yet realising that the 10am start was, in fact, hypothetical, and that MM writers came and went as required, not as dictated by a clock. I would soon come to realise that in joining MM I had converted to a timetable far removed from the daily grind of everyday commuters and, in this respect, it set the tone of my existence for the next decade and sometime beyond
         At noon we all went up in the lift to a higher floor where the IPC boardroom was located and took our places around a big rectangular
table for the weekly editorial conference, chaired by editor Ray Coleman.
         Present were all the staff I met on Monday, now joined by the magazine’s chief photographer, the denim-clad, rake-thin and rather impish Barrie Wentzell, whom I was meeting for the first time. (Very soon we would be joined by Michael Watts, Roy Hollingworth  who both arrived on the same Monday, three weeks after me  and Mark Plummer.) Ray brought the meeting to order and there followed an intense discussion, lasting approximately one hour, about what to include in the following week’s paper. As the new boy, I kept my own counsel. But this was more like it, I thought.

Barrie Wentzell and CC. Pic by Jill Furmanovsky.

         Chris Welch, as ever, was assigned the singles reviews, and there was a conversation about who might take part in ‘Blind Date’, a regular feature in which a musician was played singles ‘blind’ and had to guess who’d recorded them and comment. Someone – it might have been me – was delegated to expedite this. Potential interviews were discussed, along with the impending arrival of foreign, usually American, musicians and the benefits of interviewing them. Max Jones informed us all how he intended to fill the jazz and blues pages.  
         Ideas were solicited for wide-ranging features – subjects like ‘The Future Of Festivals’, ‘The Musicians’ Union and Rock’ or ‘Jazz At The Crossroads’ (a perennial favourite) – that might require several interviews, or ‘thought pieces’ where some member of the staff had a bone to pick on some aspect of music, or broadcasting, or the price of records or tickets for gigs. The year I joined I recall writing a feature on the growth of bootleg records, and being asked to spend a day working behind the counter of a record shop in Shepherds Bush.


         Allan Lewis, the chief-sub, ran down any items held over from the previous week that could be included, and made a regular entreaty to everyone to hand in their features promptly. It invariably fell on deaf ears. 
         Ray or Richard Williams dispensed concert tickets to those delegated to review certain shows, an occasionally vexed issue should there occur a particularly attractive prospect that several members of the staff wished to attend. On the matter of LP reviews, I learned that Richard supervised the distribution of LPs and kept a tally in a small exercise book, every so often chasing us up if we’d hung on to an LP for what he considered too long yet failed to submit a review. This was never an issue with major acts, of course, but it happened all the time with B-listers.
The meeting concluded, we dispersed to the MM pub, the Red Lion in Red Lion Alley, adjacent to the Golden Egg next door to 161 Fleet Street. The pub was run by a huge gay man called Wally who was always dressed in a black Russian tunic, and where lunches were long and liquid, unless they were taken upstairs where, oddly, there was a small Chinese restaurant. My new friend Barrie invariably ordered a ’glass of dry white wine and a small piece of cheese’.
After lunch everyone returned to the office and began making phone calls, following up whatever had been decided at the meeting. Only on Wednesday afternoons and Mondays was the office as occupied and active as this.
When I left at the end of the day, on my way to Waterloo I noticed that MM was on sale at newsstands on the Aldwych, alongside the Evening Standard and Evening News. It wouldn’t hit newsagents’ shops until the following morning so these were the earliest on sale anywhere in the country, and MM’s presence alongside the big selling London evening papers seemed to me to reflect not just its status as an arbiter of taste but the huge importance of rock and pop in youth culture. It also communicated to me that I’d done the right thing in joining MM’s staff at the beginning of this week. Onwards and upwards…

5.5.20

MY SECOND DAY AT MELODY MAKER, May 5, 1970

My second day at Melody Maker, a Tuesday, was something of an anti-climax. When I arrived at the office at the appointed time of 10am no-one else was there apart from Jeff Starrs, a young lad with long curly hair who compiled the charts and filed away press cuttings, and a man of sombre yet benign disposition who arrived just as I did but was absent the previous day.
         His name was Chris Hayes and he seemed to me to be much older than his 54 years, resembling nothing less than a relic from an earlier age. He was very tall and unusually slim, his thinning black hair styled in what today would be called a combover, and dressed formally in dark grey, a double-breasted jacket and matching trousers, perhaps his demob suit, a cream shirt and dark tie. With the bleak countenance of someone who’d just returned from the funeral of a dearly-loved relative, Chris was a man of lugubrious, melancholy, detached temperament, with levity reserved only for special occasions that seldom occurred. In 2003, in a Guardian obituary, Richard Williams would describe him as ‘a remote figure, resembling an insurance salesman from an early Graham Greene novel’. I thought he might be distantly related to the Addams Family.


         I subsequently learned that Chris, who had worked for MM since 1934, was, like Laurie Henshaw, another throwback to the era of big bands, MM’s staple until Elvis changed everything. He commuted to London once a week from Salt Dean, a coastal village east of Brighton, and was employed now on a part-time basis solely to produce the Any Questions column, to which readers would write to inquire about which brands of equipment were favoured by the stars. As befitting a reporter of so much experience, he was unusually fastidious in this mission, meticulously chronicling who preferred Fenders to Gibsons, Gretsches to Rickenbackers, Voxes to Marshalls, Watkins Copicats to Binson echo boxes. 
         After arranging his papers on the vacant desk behind me, Chris picked up the phone to get his answers. With absolutely nothing else to do I sat and listened to his end of the conversation.
        “Tell me Eric old boy [Chris always, but always, called everybody ‘old boy’], there’s a reader from Leicester here... writes in and wants to know what sort of guitar you use these days?” 
        I was not so much bemused by the fact that Chris was evidently talking to Eric Clapton (at 10.30 in the morning), as much as the casual manner in which he addressed him.
        “Fender Stratocaster, old boy? How do you spell that? S... T... R... A ...T... O... C... A... S... T... E... R. Thanks. And what sort of amp do you use these days?”
“Marshall? Does that have two Ls?”
        Another call. “Pete, old boy, there’s a reader from Brighton wants to know what sort of wah-wah you use.” (This to Pete Townshend.)
“What, you don’t use a wah-wah?”
“But how do you spell wah-wah anyway? W… A… H W… A… H. Sounds bloody silly to me, old boy. Best of luck with all that Tommy business.”
And so it went on, with Chris talking on the phone to the great and not so great. He became quite exasperated when a PR person refused to immediately connect him with the rock star to whom he wished to speak – “Well, can’t you wake him up?” – though the depth of his telephone book largely precluded the need for PRs anyway.
Occasionally his conversations would stray off the point and I came to realise that he was a chronic hypochondriac, and that an innocent ‘How are you?’ could solicit from Chris a detailed account of all illnesses, aches, pains and minor accidents he’d suffered during the previous 12 months or, if you were really unlucky, a deeply pessimistic forecast of his health prospects for the foreseeable future.
At one point in the day I thought it appropriate to introduce myself. He scrutinised me closely, peering down at me from a great height, and there may have been a glimmer of a smile, a slight movement of the lips. “Hello old boy, another Chris what? Welcome to Melody Maker old boy.”
I hardly ever spoke to him again.
For me this was verging on the surreal. For almost three hours the office was occupied solely by Chris Hayes, me and the office lad who was busy cutting up copies of MM and filing them away. Since there was no one there to tell me what to do I did absolutely nothing but listen to Chris on the phone and look at back issues of the paper that I’d read before anyway. The phone on my desk never rang, so I just sat there, feeling a bit self-conscious, redundant, completely ignorant of what, if anything, was expected of me.
Eventually, around lunchtime, Max Jones rolled up. “Couldn’t park my bloody car anywhere,” he said to no one in particular. “What are you doing here?”
“I started work here yesterday.”
“Yes, I know, but no one comes in on Tuesdays.”
“No one told me that.”
Before heading off to El Vino’s Max explained that Tuesday was press day. Editor Ray Coleman, chief sub-editor Allan Lewis and Laurie Henshaw all spent Tuesdays at QB Press, a print works in Colchester where MM was printed. Sometimes Richard Williams might join them but first thing in the morning on Tuesdays he was on the phone from his home dictating his review of whoever had opened up for the week at Ronnie Scott’s Club the night before and also, possibly, the 100 Club. The rest of the staff stayed at home ‘doing research’, which meant listening to records or reviewing them, or simply catching up on sleep.

QB, Colchester

I went out for lunch, on my own, to the Golden Egg next door, then returned to the office where, for want of anything better to do, I asked Jeff Starrs to let me look at MM’s Who cuttings file and spent a pleasant hour rummaging through their past. I think I headed off to Waterloo around 4pm feeling a bit guilty about how idle I’d been.

4.5.20

MY FIRST DAY AT MELODY MAKER, May 4, 1970

As I explained last week, I joined the staff of Melody Maker on the first Monday in May, 1970, 50 years ago today. For this auspicious occasion, I dressed in black flared trousers, a grey hounds-tooth jacket with wide lapels and, I think, a yellow shirt. Foolishly, I put on a kipper tie, not the sort of tie I would have worn for the newspaper office in Slough but a tie nonetheless, perhaps out of habit, perhaps because the only member of the staff I’d met thus far, editor Ray Coleman, had a kipper tie on when he interviewed me. I soon realised the folly of this and never wore a tie again for work on MM but I resisted the temptation to nip into the loo and remove it, feeling that would make me look even more foolish.
MM’s offices at the time were on the second floor of a large, institutional, six-storey building on the north side of Fleet Street whose doors, back and front, were manned by overweight security men in uniforms and peaked caps. Dissatisfied by the manner of his dress, in 1962 one of these uniformed custodians denied entry to Bob Dylan, on his way to meet a member of the staff.
Many other periodicals published by IPC Business Press occupied the same premises, among them several football and farming magazines, as well as such fascinating titles as Laundry & Dry Cleaning News, Naval Architecture Monthly and Cage Birds Weekly, whose bow-tie wearing editor we affectionately referred to as ‘Joey’. Next to Melody Maker was Cycling Monthly and two doors along was Disc & Music Echo.
Considering that Melody Maker was about to enter its golden age, when the circulation would rise to over 200,000 a week, the offices were fairly underwhelming. Cigarette smoke hung in the air, as it did in every newspaper office I’d worked in, and there was a litter-strewn flat roof outside, accessed by a door in the corner. It was dimly lit with a scuffed parquet floor, dented bottle-green filing cabinets on two sides, old wooden desks, rickety chairs and black manual typewriters that looked to have seen service for a decade or more. The phones were also black and made from heavy Bakelite and the walls were covered in a random assortment of torn and faded posters.
Richard Williams, the assistant editor, had written out some Dylan lyrics and stuck them to the walls. I sat opposite a sign that read: ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ and to my right were the words ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters’. Behind Richard’s chair were pictures of Italian footballers, and next to him sat Allan Lewis, the chief sub-editor, whose humour was often dryer than the Sahara.  
The vacant desk that I assumed was next to one occupied by features editor Chris Welch, a cheerful, curly-haired fellow whose Melody Maker features and idiosyncratic singles reviews I had been reading for years. Next to him, in a suit and tie, was the urbane, middle-aged Laurie Henshaw, the news editor, a veteran of the swing era, and reputedly something of a ladies man. In the corner opposite Laurie sat Max Jones, the much respected jazz critic who wore a dark blue skullcap and spent much of his day at El Vino’s, the Fleet Street wine bar opposite the building. Max was forever complaining about something or other, a problem with his expenses, the lack of parking facilities or how a ped (his word for pedestrian) had somehow inconvenienced him on his drive to work. Although jazz was his speciality he liked rock music too, at least some of it, and could discuss it intelligently. For this reason he was the first member of my parents’ generation that I met – and one of the very few that I would ever meet – with whom I could relate as if he was a member of my own generation.
         There were several empty desks which suggested to me that MM was not operating at a full complement that May day, and I soon learnt that my arrival coincided with a period of editorial instability. The previous editor, Jack Hutton, had just left to launch Sounds, a rival rock weekly, and taken with him a good proportion of the old MM staff. Ray Coleman had arrived from editing Disc & Music Echo and was busy recruiting new staff, me amongst them, with backgrounds similar to his own, young journalists from provincial newspapers like myself. In the coming weeks many other newcomers would arrive, among them Michael Watts, Roy Hollingworth, Mark Plummer, folk writer Andrew Means and sub Neil Roberts, a derisive New Zealander with whom I would play snooker at lunchtimes in the community hall adjoining St Brides Church on the opposite side of Fleet Street.

On the flat roof outside the MM offices, back row left to right: Laurie Henshaw, Andrew Means, office manager Roy Birchall, Michael Watts, Chris Hayes, Chris Welch, Neil Roberts; front: CC, Roy Hollingworth, chart complier Jeff Starrs. Pic by Barrie Wentzell, taken in 1971. 

         All this was in the immediate future as I bucked down to work that first Monday. It was was very busy, it being news day – the day when the magazine’s news pages (1-4) were filled. Under the supervision of Laurie Henshaw I was assigned to write various short news stories, some of them re-written from press hand-outs, others from information garnered on the telephone. I spoke to Ginger Baker about personnel changes in his group Airforce. Chris Welch was busy putting together the Raver column, MM’s gossip page, which often featured the adventures and opinions of Jiving K. Boots, a fictitious rock star from his home territory of Catford.
The contents of the Raver were fairly random. “Anyone got anything for the Raver?” Chris might ask.
“I saw Georgie Fame backstage at…” someone might say.
Chris got to work: ‘Georgie Fame seen digging …. at …’
At various times during the day I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Here I was, on the staff of Melody Maker, Britain’s most distinguished rock and pop paper, the magazine that I’d rushed out and bought every Wednesday for years. I’m not quite sure how I expected the offices of MM to be, but it certainly wasn’t like this. This was too ordinary, the offices too drab, the staff too matter-of-fact, the situation too mundane. 
        I wasn’t quite sure at what time the staff downed tools but when I noticed others leaving, around six, I opted to sling my hook too, though I asked Laurie if he needed anything more from me. He didn’t and I was duly dismissed. It was a far from inspirational introduction to my life on MM but a good deal less onerous than working for the Slough Evening MailOn the train from Waterloo back to Egham, daydreaming as I passed the Battersea Power Station, I was idly wondering whether it had all been a dream, whether I might I wake up tomorrow and be back at Slough Magistrates Court, once again reporting on the justice meted out to those who drove carelessly on the M4. 

1.5.20

A VAGUE HAZE OF DELIRIUM CREEPS UP ON ME – My Passage To Melody Maker, Part 3


I sat behind a desk in Melody Maker’s offices for the first time at 10am on Monday, May 4, 1970 – 50 years ago next week. To get there, I drove from Englefield Green to Egham railway station, caught a train to Waterloo and a bus to 161 Fleet Street, London EC4, the HQ of IPC Business Press. The real journey, of course, was a bit more complicated and took considerably longer, and it involved all sorts of twists and turns and even a false start. When I look back on it now it seems like a rational progression, a logical career step, but at the time I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. In the end, a family tragedy played its part in showing me the way.
         In the second week of August, 1969, I saw The Who for the first time at Plumpton Racecourse, the NJF Festival near Lewes. The same friend who the previous year had seen Yes with me and infiltrated La Chasse Club in London landed a weekend job working on one of the bars, and he got me onto the site on the premise that I’d help washing glasses. I probably did too, but not on the Saturday night when The Who were playing. By today’s standards, the festival at Plumpton was small time, perhaps 25,000 attending at the most, which made it fairly easy to push my way down towards the front, to the right of the stage where Pete Townshend stood.
         I knew The Who’s songs and the Tommy cycle well by now so watching them perform at last, a matter of yards from where I was craning my neck, was a rite of passage I’ll not forget; their drive, their fluency, the deafening volume, far louder than any group I’d heard before, that hypnotic sight of The Who in full flight, tearing up a stage in an era when their verve knew no bounds. As I watched, spellbound, never for a moment taking my eyes off them, Townshend in particular as he leapt into the air, pirouetted and windmilled, it occurred to me that my fellow festival-goers, whooping, singing and yelling alongside me, strangers all yet crushed together like football fans behind the goal before all-seater stadiums, were the kind of people I wanted as friends. How was I to know it could be as good as this? At the climax of Tommy, as The Who sang about listening to us and getting the music, as the yelling around me grew even louder, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Townshend and Daltrey on stage at Plumpton, 1969. (Pic by Eric Hayes) 
         
The Monday after the Plumpton festival, back in the Evening Mail offices in Slough, I was somewhere else inside my head. How could I explain to the people in this office how I’d felt on Saturday night? All too briefly I had been where I wanted to be but now I was back where I was before. I’d begun to hate wearing a suit and tie, and I didn’t like getting my hair cut – both prerequisites for newspaper reporters who were supposed to look like bank tellers. A week or two later, on a hot day after a liquid lunch, I fell asleep in the Slough courtroom, snored lightly and was ordered out by the magistrate. It got back to the editor and I was carpeted. In September I spent a week in France with an old friend, the drummer in my first band, driving south and staying in a log cabin on a campsite near Cannes. Drunk one night on cheap red wine, I told him how conflicted I was. It’ll be ok, he said. Something will turn up.
         He was right but I’d have to wait. It was October when I spotted the advert in MM’s back pages for the job on their editorial staff. Eureka! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I somehow got an afternoon off and caught the train into London, to MM’s offices on Fleet Street, for an interview with the paper’s editor, Ray Coleman. He asked me to name my favorite group. I didn’t hesitate. The Who.
         Ray smiled. Good choice, he replied.
         I told him, no doubt prattling on like an idiot, how much I’d enjoyed seeing them at the NJF Festival, and he wrote something down on a pad on his desk. “There have been lots of replies to the advert,” he told me as I left. I’ll bet there has, I thought. Half of them were at Plumpton.
         A week or two later, Ray’s secretary called to tell me I hadn’t got the job. But here was hope. I was on the short list, she told me. There might be another vacancy soon. I kept all this to myself, and to soothe my disappointment I exchanged my Ford Escort for a used MGB, red, open top, very flash.
         About one weekend in four I would drive back up to Yorkshire to see my friends there and reconnect with mum and dad. For many years now my mother had suffered from an agonising, chronic back condition, perhaps a legacy of her role in WW2 when, as an ATS chauffeuse to top military brass stationed around York, she’d driven poorly sprung jeeps over rough ground regularly for the duration. Treatment after treatment on her spine had failed and for weeks that summer she was immobile, in a plaster cast from her neck to her knees after yet more fruitless surgery at Leeds Infirmary. Finally freed from the cast, one evening in late November mum waited until dad left her alone for a couple of hours and took her own life. Somehow holding his emotions in check, dad called me in Englefield Green the following morning. Reeling, I drove up to Skipton and wept at her funeral.


Top: My mum in her ATS (Auxiliary Transport Services) uniform during the war; below: with my dad in the late 1950s. 

         Christmas 1969 was an awful, miserable time for us. Dad tried desperately hard to put on a brave face, taking my sister and I out on Christmas day for a meal in a restaurant, the first and last time we ever did this. In a peculiar way, the shock of it all, the sudden, unexpected loss of the parent who had encouraged my reading all those years ago,
was a final loosening of any apron strings that tied me to my past in Skipton. It was as if I could now do something different with my life without the need for her approval, free to do precisely what I wanted, but whatever it was it hadn’t happened, not yet.
         In January I was back at the Slough Evening Mail, desperate for a change. One thing was certain: I couldn’t go back north. In the flat in Englefield Green I listened to my records on earphones, The Who now joined by Hendrix, Cream and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I reinvestigated Dylan, the ’65/’66 albums, and discovered Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant which I could soon recite parrot fashion. My LP collection was growing, Elvis, Buddy and the Everlys from way back, lots of Beatles and Stones now joined by a dozen or more others. One day I arrived for work in an open-necked shirt and was sent home to put on a tie. We got word that John Lennon had bought a house at Ascot, just within our circulation area, and a photographer and I were dispatched to investigate. We got no further than the gates of Tittenhurst Park. Although it was a thrill to think I was so close to a Beatle, I couldn’t help but think that had I not been wearing a suit and tie I might have crossed the divide.

Tittenhurst Park at Ascot, the Lennon residence where I was refused entry. 

         By March I was in no doubt that this reporters’ life wasn’t for me. But what to do about it? It was all I was trained for but the thought of another day at the magistrates’ court or council meeting was soul-destroying. I was drinking a lot at the Fox & Hounds, our local in Englefield Green. Perhaps out of frustration, I seduced the girlfriend of the mate who turned me on to Zep and The Doors and didn’t feel as bad about it as I ought to have done. It happened in the passenger seat of my MGB, not the easiest manoeuvre, when I was giving her a ride home from the pub. She was certainly willing.
         Then, out of the blue, came the lifeline I was waiting for and everything changed: another call from Ray Coleman’s secretary, this time telling me about another vacancy on MM. Was I still interested? She didn't have to ask and I didn’t even have to go for a second interview. I must have been number two on the list.
         I worked my notice on the paper in Slough during April and when I told my colleagues there that I was going to work on Melody Maker they looked askance, as if I was jumping off a precipice. My dad didn’t comment much. He knew I was out of his hands now. I have no idea what mum would have thought, probably hated the idea. It didn’t matter. Nothing did now.
         So it was that at the end of April 1970, 50 years ago this week, I left regular journalism for good and became a full time music writer. On that day, 50 years ago on Monday, when I rolled up for work in MM’s offices for the first time, it really was the first day of the rest of my life. I’d reached Fleet Street but on my own terms.
         Fifty years later I still think I made the right choice.

Fleet Street in the early 1970s. MM's offices were the right, adjacent to the taxi.